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How Women at Nike Changed Everything, and What It Should Mean to Your Organization

Image via  Kustoo

Image via Kustoo

Nike, the world’s largest sports footwear and apparel company, has been a household name for decades. Seeing the familiar swoosh brings to mind larger than life athletes like Serena Williams and Michael Jordan, and motivates many of us to “Just Do It.” For the past several months, however, Nike has been in the news for failing, then seemingly rectifying, and then potentially failing further its female employees. So, what happened, and what can we learn from it? And where does it go from here? We’ll do our best to give you a (somewhat) brief of overview here, along with our thoughts on what we can all take away from what is inevitably the company’s worst nightmare in quite some time. 

So, What Happened? 

Last year, a group of female employees at Nike conducted a covert internal survey of their female peers about the culture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the company. In March of 2018, the survey findings, which were the catalyst of one of the biggest shakeups the company has ever seen, were presented to Nike CEO Mark Parker. 

The survey findings told the stories of women who complained to the proper channels about atrocious acts of sexual harassment and blatant gender discrimination that were never rectified and an inner circle of powerful men that protected and projected the careers of anyone connected to them. For many of us, these survey results were shocking. However, high-ranking women had been publicly leaving the company for months before these findings were reported to Parker. One of those women even wrote a letter to the CEO on her departure, citing sexual harassment and cultural epidemic of excluding women from the table where decisions are made as key reasons. 

Reports made to human resource teams. Women leaving at staggering rates, especially from high-ranking positions (two of which had been with the company since their teenage years.) The company struggling to gain traction in women’s categories, which also happens to be the fastest-growing segment in their market. 

The results of the survey that made its way to Palmer’s desk in March may have been shocking to those of us outside of the Oregon headquarters. But to the CEO? It’s hard to believe that he was surprised by what the women were saying. 

Speculation of Parker’s knowledge of the company culture aside, he reacted to the survey in a big way and did it quickly. Nike completed a six-month formal review process of the company culture. Several top executives, members of the “inner circle” who reportedly protected subordinates who sexually harassed their female colleagues are stepping down or were immediately terminated. It added new leadership (including a new chief diversity and inclusion officer.) And three weeks ago, Nike gave pay raises to over 7,000 employees in an attempt to close the gender gap as a fulfillment of a pledge Parker made a few months ago at a companywide meeting.

While it seems as though Mark Parker is making large strides in the right direction for the company, as of last week, the definitive take from former employees is that it is too little, too late.

What's Happening Now: The Lawsuit

Two former employees, Kelly Cahill and Sara Johnston, filed a federal lawsuit last week that claims Nike “devalues and demeans” women. The complaint describes the workplace culture to be even worse than alleged previously, and demands remedies above and beyond what Parker and Nike have already done. The plaintiffs are requesting “damages, back pay for lost compensation, and for victims of discrimination to be reinstated ‘to their rightful positions,’” according to The Broadsheet. “What's more, they're demanding a court order requiring Nike to create and implement ‘reliable’ standards for gauging employee performance and determining compensations and promotions.”

Our Take

Our takeaways from this seemingly unending disaster for the brand can be summed up in two words: Culture matters. 

This takeaway applies regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit and was, in fact, my takeaway before I had to re-write this post after I learned this morning about the lawsuit being filed. As I alluded to earlier, it is hard for me to believe that the CEO of a company would be surprised by such prevalent disgruntlement of his female employees. How could the CEO be so unaware of this cultural epidemic, especially with what seems like such obvious evidence?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and likely never will. But I do know that culture is more powerful than policies, or as your parents have likely told you, actions speak louder than words. It is completely possible, as alleged in this lawsuit, that a company may have all of the policies needed on paper (and in their handbook) to ensure that this level of gender discrimination and sexual harassment never happen, but still not protect its employees. 

Why is this possible? Because it is culture, not policy, that dictates workplace decisions. Each time that an employee makes a formal complaint only to have to return to working under the same manager who harassed them, and every time that a less qualified man gets promoted over a more qualified woman, it is culture dictating who the most powerful and important are within an organization. 

Nike's cultural mistakes are much more severe than most organizations', but they still represent a large problem that spans across industries: We as women are fighting an uphill battle to overcome decades upon decades of workplace culture that values men over women. 

As organizational leaders, your approach to change your culture can be simple and straightforward: First, acknowledge that the culture needs to change. Then, gather data to understand what the scope of that change needs to be. Finally, take action. 

If it seems daunting, it is. We're here to help. 


The New York Times (and again here)

Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho

The Broadsheet